DORAL, Fla. – As projects go, Butch Harmon was working with two vastly different canvases as morning wore to afternoon on Sunday at Doral. With his arm draped over Nick Watney’s shoulder the swing sage offered only a simple pep talk that bordered on cliché.
“Nick is probably playing better than anyone in the field right now,” Harmon said. “I just told him you just need to go play golf . . . take care of business and the business will take care of itself.”
On Sunday at the WGC-Cadillac Championship business was good, a closing 67 for a two-stroke victory. Not a bad day at the office by any measure.
On Wednesday, Watney went through the media rigors of a photo shoot, complete with a San Francisco Giants jersey with his name and the No. 24 on it in honor of his childhood hero the “Say Hey Kid,” Willie Mays. Considering his play on Sunday, it would have been more apropos had the life-long Giants fan worn the jersey of eccentric hurler Brian Wilson – a kindred closer.
Harmon’s omega started Sunday two strokes adrift of his alpha, Dustin Johnson, and pulled to within one stroke with back-to-back birdies to open his day and played the turn in 3 under to edge ahead of his long-hitting stablemate.
From there the man his Tour friends call “Rube” was nearly perfect with five pars, capped by a 25-foot momentum saving par putt at the 14th hole, and a birdie from 12 feet at the last – a filthy fastball to sit down the side.
“Two years ago came into my head (when he was outdueled at Doral and lost by a stroke to Phil Mickelson), and also Whistling Straits, just the letdown and disappointment of the way that I performed that day,” Watney said. “So I just wanted to, you know, give myself, or allow myself to play well and to execute, and I was able to do that.”
Not that Watney, whose understated demeanor borders on the aloof and obscures a game that is ready for primetime, is one for theatrics or facial hair. Although his caddie Chad Reynolds is almost as wanting in the grooming department as Wilson following an ill-conceived challenge from his boss earlier this year.
At Torrey Pines, Watney convinced Reynolds not to cut his hair until he finished outside the top 10. Since then Watney has finished T-6, T-5, T-6, T-9 and first. Reynolds’ mane is now 4 inches long and growing. But it’s a hygiene hit he’s willing to take.
It’s not as though Watney’s waltz to his third Tour title was without some adversity. On Saturday he stepped to the 18th tee tied for the lead, pulled his drive into the Blue’s watery abyss and stewed.
“I told him you’re probably going to have the same shot again and have a chance to redeem yourself,” Reynolds said. “Damn if he didn’t.”
Even on Sunday Harmon’s pep talk for the other half of his high-profile stable went straight back to last year’s U.S. Open. Johnson was also looking for a measure of redemption at Doral. Last year’s victory at the BMW Championship helped put to rest the demons of Pebble Beach and Whistling Straits, but the questions remain.
“I was really proud of him. He came out early (Sunday) and did everything in slow-mo,” Harmon said. “At Pebble he looked like Carl Lewis he was so fast. But he’s just more relaxed now.”
Although Johnson didn’t add to his burgeoning resume, he couldn’t find much fault in his play at Doral. He ranked seventh in fairways hit (a statistical anomaly for such a power player) and 11th in greens in regulation but struggled on the Blue’s putting surfaces.
“I didn’t make any putts,” said Johnson, who carded a Sunday 71 and finished alone in second place at 14 under. “I drove it well, I even rolled it well, but I was just a little bit off.”
The same could be said for Tiger Woods.
There was progress by way a closing 66 which matched his low round of the year, Day 2 at the Dubai Desert Classic, and his lowest in an official PGA Tour event since the second round of last year’s Deutsche Bank Championship.
“Every tournament that I’ve played this year I’ve felt better coming out of it,” Woods said. “Even though the results have not been good, I’ve felt better because it identifies some of the things I need to work on and that’s a good thing.”
The complete package, however, remains elusive. In fact, the current version of Tiger 4.0 looks a lot like Luke Donald circa 2007, a master of the backdoor top 10. And three days paired with Mickelson didn’t seem to help Woods’ fragile psyche.
Lefty is hitting the ball well beyond his 40 years, which is to say well past Woods who showed little confidence in his driver, or either of the two putters he trotted out at Doral.
Both head north to Bay Hill with more questions than answers and short on time in the run-up to Augusta National. Mickelson, who was 4 over on the weekend and tied for 55th, was long (third in the field with a 306-yard average) but wrong with his irons, hitting just 44 percent of his greens in regulation. While Woods’ optimism seemed well placed considering he tied for sixth in greens in regulation and first in putts made distance.
Yet as encouraging as Woods’ Round 4 play and Mickelson’s driving was, the year’s second WGC belonged to Generation Next.
In order those billed as the next great wave finished first (Watney), second (Johnson), eighth (Rickie Fowler) and ninth (Hunter Mahan). That Watney topped that marquee underscored how underappreciated he may be outside of the fairway ropes.
He was overlooked as a potential Ryder Cup pick last year despite a tie for 18th at the PGA Championship and just two missed cuts in 24 events and his understated style keeps him out of the press room and the limelight.
Quietly, almost cautiously, Watney has emerged as a bonafide superstar, albeit a reluctant one. There will be no celebration in the Watney house Sunday. He still has his NCAA bracket to fill out – he’s an avid North Carolina fan – and next week’s stop in Tampa looms.
For the ultimate closer, it’s always about the next game.
Follow Rex Hoggard on Twitter @RexHoggard